Originally posted 2015/01/13
Edit (January 21, 2015) - At the end of a very long day of reviewing applications, we were each handed a hand-written and framed note from someone who has the most to gain from our efforts. Thank you Jennifer for the encouragement! I hope that we are an encouragement to you too.
Next week Steve is heading to Toronto to review studentship and post doctoral fellowship applications for the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada. Funding, through operating grants, trainee awards, and other types of grants, is what keeps labs running. We are almost completely dependent on competitive research grants, just as pretty much all research groups at a university or research institute are. However, not every, or even most grant applications are funded. In fact, in recent funding rounds at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Canada’s largest government funding body for medical research, fewer than 15% of applications were successful.
Peer review is central to the process of deciding which grants are funded and which are not. Check out this post from Dr. Karin Lee (here), the Vice President Research of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada, for a really good longer-form description of how peer review works and why it’s important. Briefly, each application is reviewed in detail by at least two experts in the field who are qualified to evaluate its merits and feasibility. Operating grant applications in particular can be very detailed, and it takes a lot of time to do a thorough review. After the individual reviews are complete, members of the panel meet and discuss each application, ultimately deciding on whether to recommend funding or not. There are always more fundable applications than there is money (see the above very low funding rate), and therefore each grant is given a score with the award (usually) going to the top few. The review panel only makes recommendations; the funding agency makes the final decisions as to where the money goes.
“Peers” are central to the process of “Peer Review”. You need to be an expert to properly evaluate a complex scientific application, and the best-qualified experts are other active scientists in the field. It’s a lot of work to be on a review panel and you're almost never paid. It's an important part of the process though, and well all depend on high quality review, so scientists (usually) take the job very seriously. That doesn’t stop us from complaining when our own applications aren’t successful which, these days, is more often than not.
Wish us luck!